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Modi declares victory but his party fails to reach an outright majority


India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, has won a third term in office. But his party, while winning the most seats in the Indian Parliament, did not secure the majority they were hoping for and, according to the polls, expected. Modi will now need to work with an opposition that does not support his Hindu nationalist ideology.

For a view about what happened and what it means, we've called political analyst Neelanjan Sircar. He is with the Center for Policy Research in Delhi. That's an independent, nonpartisan think tank. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

NEELANJAN SIRCAR: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So as we said, Modi's party won far less seats than expected. What do you make of that?

SIRCAR: So, you know, the last two national elections, the BJP, led by Narendra Modi - the Bharatiya Janata Party is the full name of the party - has had extraordinary electoral outcomes - you know, numbers that we hadn't seen in 30, 40 years - 282 seats in 2014, 303 seats in 2019. Two hundred seventy-two is the majority mark. And so we all sort of imagine that the BJP, led by Narendra Modi, would see those kinds of numbers again. But actually, they fell to around 240 seats by themselves. They are going to require coalition partners in order to form government, and that's sort of the discussion that is underway today.

MARTIN: So, you know, I think we've - we're familiar here in the U.S. with the way that Modi has cracked down on any public criticism of his leadership. I am curious if you think that that approach contributed to the results that we saw.

SIRCAR: I think it definitely did. You know, in the lead-up to the election, we saw two standing chief ministers arrested. We saw the main opposition party, the Congress party, have its accounts frozen, and we saw a lot of bullying of political opposition - in fact, so much so that many were obliged to defect to the BJP - to the Bharatiya Janata Party - in order to survive. And so we do think that the voters, in various ways, did punish the BJP for that.

In certain places, people would say things like, we need to defend the constitution. In other places, they would be concerned about leaders coming from other parties into the BJP. In other places, they would say, we need to save federalism. But all of it sort of boiled down to the same source - the idea that a government had crossed red lines when it came to certain democratic norms.

MARTIN: So where do you think this - so, as we said, he will now have to govern in coalition, which is something that has been part of India's past but not under Modi, who has - as you've just told us, has substantially sort of consolidated sort of power. What does this mean going forward? Like, where in his policies might we see the difference going forward?

SIRCAR: So it's really an unknown unknown. Prime Minister Modi, his calling card, his model of governance is predicated on political centralization. He was the chief minister of the state of Gujarat for many years before he became the prime minister, and he also governed in this fashion when he was the chief minister of the state. So he's never had to compromise.

My take is that he's going to continue to try to centralize power and try to figure out ways of coercing his coalition partners, even though he doesn't have a single-party majority himself. But it's an unknown unknown. How well will it work? Will the coalition partners take it? Will the coalition partners push back? I think we're in for a particularly stormy beginning to the coalition government because this is a leadership that has never had to deal with coalition governance, not at the state level and not at the national level.

MARTIN: And do you have a sense of what expectations people in India have for this new coalition government? And if you have time, we'd love to know how these results might affect India's foreign policy, specifically its relationship with the U.S. and China.

SIRCAR: So, you know, I think that the average person has been happy with many parts of Prime Minister Modi's policies, particularly cash transfers, welfare delivery. Many of these things have been fine infrastructure. But the crossing of certain red lines, the using of state agencies, that's really a line that hasn't been crossed, that shouldn't have been crossed. Very quickly on foreign policy, I think you will continue to see a muscular foreign policy that India has shown towards the - with the U.S. and China. You won't really see the coalition partners moderate that very much.

MARTIN: That is Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in Delhi. That's an independent, nonpartisan think tank. Mr. Sircar, thanks so much for sharing these insights with us.

SIRCAR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.